Wednesday, March 12, 2014

POINTING AT VIEWS: Another Flea Means More Ointment

(NOTE: Drill your holes and stand in line/‘till the shift boss comes to tell you/You must drill her out on top/Can’t you feel the rock dust in your lungs?/It’ll cut down a miner when he is still young/Two years and the silicosis takes hold/And I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold)

Any perspective besides your own is suspect. What seems rational to one person can infuriate or confuse another, like when the Nobel Peace Prize committee sticks a bare-chested, former KGB agent on its short list of contenders just days before he decides to pull a Czechoslovakia on the Ukraine. From the perspective of those above the age of three with a vague knowledge of international politics, their choice is stupid. From the committee’s perspective, he appears to be a likely candidate. Who is right depends on whether invasion is seen as a hindrance or a sparkling addition to the resume.
Call it what you will—point of view, perspective, voice—every story is told by a central narrator, identified by how he or she sees the characters move through events and conflicts. The narrator is there to help the reader navigate the rocks and rills of a story to its end. Without the narrator, the story blunders lost through the fog to the cliff’s edge and jumps.
First person tells a story through the use of the personal pronoun, “I.” The reader assumes the role of the narrator, taking possession of the story. They are invited to feel and react as the storyteller. Though nothing beats the immediacy of the first person, it also has drawbacks. The narrator only knows what is in front of him or her, and nothing about the underlying motivations of the other characters. “I” can also be annoying when overused. Too many personal pronouns come off as self-conscious when confidence is necessary to move the story along. Writing in first person is harder than it appears, but this point of view is used in genre fiction (especially detective and thrillers) and some of the best in literary fiction, like Oracle Night by Paul Auster (Henry Holt, 2003).
Second person only works in short doses, and if you think the novel you are working on should be in the second person, best of luck. The second person knows nothing except action and reaction. Readers are left out. You sit in a chair and open a book. In the first paragraph on the first page, the reader is addressed as “you,” like you are expected to mimic the actions to come. You really don’t want to on account of the main character being nothing like you and you are not responsible for his or her problems. You see where this is going? Jay McInerney used the second person in his Bright Lights, Big City (Random House, 1984), and you know how well his career has gone since then, Bolivian Marching Powder or not. You have reached the end of this paragraph with the hope the next one will be better.
The third-person omniscient narrator knows all, sees all, has access to the hidden parts of a character, and can flip between characters without confusion or apology. This narrator knows everything in the context of the story, and the reader is free to pick the character they most identify with. Still, the third person keeps a distance from the reader, never taking a stand on the ensuing conflicts. This is where “free indirect discourse,” also known as style indirect libre, comes into play. The narrator is allowed the occasional entrance to the story in a synthesis of first and third person. One of the best examples of free indirect discourse is Stendahl’s The Red and the Black. Yes, it’s an old nineteenth century novel and he used discourse to get out of a couple of censorship problems, but there are many lessons to be learned in its pages about how to break down the division between reader and story.
Whatever point of view a writer decides to use, make sure it is appropriate to the story. John Irving was ready to hand in his manuscript for Until I Find You (Random House, 2005) to his publisher when one last reading showed the first-person voice as wrong, and he had only weeks to rewrite the novel in the third person. Be warned.
Big eighteen-wheelers are double-parked on your favorite streets and thoroughfares, packed to the ceiling with The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). The only book you will ever need about writing and publishing is such a resounding success that only heavy freight can keep up with the demand. Meet famous tri-state truckers outside your local independent bookstore by logging on for the nearest one. Clerks wearing back support belts in spring colors will sell you a copy fresh out of the box. Weary travelers nap separately.

NEXT: Tangled in a Leash

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